Hamas’ lightening takeover of the Gaza Strip that took place from June 7th to 13th 2007 surprised The United States and Israel; however, trained observers of Palestinian political culture are keenly aware of the deep roots of the enmity between the dueling Palestinian groups that began with Hamas’s founding twenty years earlier in 1987. Some analysts have suggested that the June 2007 violence was a “clear and outward manifestation of a civil war that had gone undeclared for years.”
In fact, Hamas had long heralded its strategy of taking over the PLO via a combination of political and military moves. However, Western tunnel vision forcing a view of the Palestinians as a political monolith reflected an inability or unwillingness to consider internal Palestinian political and cultural divisions as part of an overall strategic assessment influenced both the Western powers and international public opinion.
The Clinton and Bush administrations and even official Israel had largely made the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli crisis their main point of reference in approaching the larger Middle East conflict. This shortsightedness of western intelligence, security, and political echelons misled many in the international community as to the deep schisms both within the Palestinian camp and across the larger Arab world that have shaped the contours of the current fractured Middle East far more sharply than the ongoing Palestinian Israeli conflict.
True, the United States, Israel, and the Western powers breathed a sigh of relief when Abbas won the PA elections in January, 2005. With Arafat gone, and the Al Aksa Intifada dying, Washington believed the peace process could be re-treaded. The west embraced Abbas as far more moderate than Arafat and with Condoleezza Rice as the newly tapped secretary of state, the Bush doctrine was “out” and the “Clintonesque” political race for the two state solution was back “in.”
But Washington repeated the same mistakes. They inhaled everything that the US trained Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad—“their man in Ramallah” was telling them while Rice praised Abbas at every opportunity . Washington and Jerusalem “bet the farm” on a stronger and reformed Fatah and a weaker Hamas. They poured millions into the PA. They sent four star US generals such as William “Kip” Ward and Keith Dayton to reform the seemingly incorrigible Palestinian security militias that included terror operatives ( and some still are D.D.) from the Fatah’s Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades.
But while Washington’s optimism soared, their strategy was in free-fall on the Palestinian Street. Palestinians had already written-off Abbas and the Fatah after Arafat’s late 2004 demise and final flight to Paris for medical treatment. The Palestinian chattering classes and the public held out little hope that Abbas would be any better than his mythological predecessor. Nothing much changed on the ground for Palestinians. Abu Mazen brought in the same corrupt “Abu’s” who had populated Arafat’s inner circle. Appointed Prime Minister Salaam Fayad had little power and was hated and undermined equally by Hamas and Fatah. PA reforms were cosmetic at best. Islamist Jihadi groups were paid millions of dollars in blackmail salaries by Mahmoud Abbas to go underground and hide their weapons. Arafat’s “legacy” continued: massive corruption, protection of terrorists, and talking peace in English with the West while inciting Palestinians in Arabic at home. It seemed that the administration was being defrauded once again. Or perhaps it was defrauding itself.
Washington seemed neither to be paying attention to the 20 year undeclared civil war between Fatah and Hamas that provided overall historical context to Hamas’s June 2007 overthrow of Fatah in Gaza , nor the more recent “trigger” events that began in late 2005 immediately following Israel’s September unilateral withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip. Israel’s pullout magnified the enmity and competition between Fatah and Hamas for control of Gaza which fell deeply into lawlessness, chaos, and anarchy.
Armed Fatah gangs faced off against Hamas paramilitary groups. Both Hamas and Fatah laid claim to the valuable real estate that Israel had abandoned in Gush Katif and the settlements of the northern Gaza Strip. Jewish investment groups such as Sir Ronald Cohen’s Portland Trust in which Mohammed Dahlan was the senior Palestinian partner, and former World Bank Director Jim Wolfenson who as the Quartet’s Special Envoy had negotiated the turnover of Israeli greenhouses to the PA for a fraction of their market value, had hoped to transform Gaza from a poverty stricken island of terror and hopelessness to the “Hong Kong” of the Middle East. Instead, This well intentioned if naive western investor “philanthropy” that was backed by Rice, reinforced the charge among Hamas officials that the corrupt Fatah and PA officials led by Dahlan and embraced by the U.S. and Israel were enriching themselves at the expense of the people of Gaza.
Following the Israeli unilateral Gaza withdrawal the Hamas displayed a huge banner that read” THREE YEARS OF INTIFADA BEAT TEN YEARS OF NEGOTIATIONS”. Hamas “victory banner” apparently infuriated Abbas and PA leaders as they felt deceived by Israel and the Americans. For her part, Rice did not understand the complaint. She thought Israel’s departure from Gaza should give reason for celebration by the Fatah, according to Rice biographer Glenn Kessler.
Rice’s conceptual failure to “connect the dots” was a sharp indication of the larger strategic disconnect that would lead to the June 2007 Strategic Surprise. Rice, the US administration and the Quartet understood the Gaza problem and its solution as one primarily between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, whereas the Palestinians understood the real war to be between Fatah and Hamas.
Another immediate symptom of the post Gaza disengagement Hamas-Fatah struggle was the murder of General Musa Arafat, Security Advisor to newly elected PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, former head of the PA’s national Security apparatus in Gaza, and cousin to Former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Former ISA Chief Avi Dichter and other senior Israeli security community blamed Hamas while Hamas and even some Fatah Websites blamed the Arafat assassination on PA Preventative Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan.
A former senior PA official confirmed to the author his assessment that Dahlan was responsible for Musa Arafat’s murder, underscoring Dahlan’s reputation as one of the most hated personalities in Gaza. The raging warlord culture, public dissatisfaction with the PA fuelled by rampant poverty would stimulate a ground swell of popular support for Hamas who convened mass public demonstrations that attracted tens of thousands of Gazans who wanted to hear Hamas’ alternative political vision for Gaza.